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  • Writer's pictureNick Nichols

The Voodoo of Sales Leadership

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

In the spirit of Halloween, let’s explore the voodoo of sales leadership. What makes a great Sales Leader? Almost all sales organizations are in search of the answer to that very question. In fact, maximizing their success rests strongly in finding the best sales leader for their business. Getting the answer to this question is like asking for help with your resume. If you ask 100 people, you will likely get 99 different opinions. The same holds true for sales leadership. It is very much a learned skill just like becoming an engineer, accountant or attorney.

There are three considerations I want to briefly tackle with this blog: 1. People good at sales are just born that way. 2. Great salespeople make great sales managers. 3. Is there really a difference between sales management and sales leadership?

Let’s start with “natural born salespeople”. People may be born with strong personalities, great communication skills, strategic minds or many other highly valued characteristics, but that doesn’t necessarily make them good salespeople. Sales is a learned profession just like being a Financial Advisor, an IT Professional, Teacher, etc. There is no genetic factor for sales.

The greatest difference is how you learn it. Higher education is just now catching up on the idea that they need to offer a curriculum in sales education simply because a large population of their graduates in Marketing, Business, Technology and other majors will ultimately end up in Sales. For the most part, great salespeople learn to be great through various company training programs and private sales courses, but mostly experience.

The same holds true for sales leadership, only amplified, leading us to our second consideration. To become a CPA, an attorney, certified in an engineering specialty, or even a Physician there is a defined process and testing to certify one’s abilities and credentialing. When it comes to sales leadership, it is all about experience…wins and battle scars!

It is easy to google what makes a great sales leader and you will find more information than you have time to read. Most of the time the attributes you find will be customized to a specific training program, sales strategy or leadership training someone wants to sell you. There are many excellent programs available if their methodology matches your need. On the other hand, sales leadership is most definitely not a one-size-fits-all. There is no program or substitute for experience. You learn how to deal with the various challenges faced by sales organizations within different business settings “in the trenches”.

A better resource, although less prominent on the internet, are organizations that simply want to educate us. There was an article in The Harvard Business Review several years ago that I found to have a more realistic perspective on this topic: “The Seven Attributes of the Most Effective Sales Leaders”.

HBR was not trying to sell us anything (other than maybe a subscription and I can live with that) and their findings were based on the combination of a questionnaire given to 400 sales leaders, plus additional interviews with more than 1000 sales leaders and managers. Here is what they found to be the most successful attributes of the BEST SALES LEADERS:

1. Target Fixation: Target and deadline driven, focused on achieving goals with a sense of urgency, regardless of circumstances (FOCUS)

2. Command Instinct: Established command over their team…part of the team, but now were the team captain (ACCOUNTABILITY)

3. Hiring Ability: the ability to identify and hire top sales talent (TEAM DEVELOPMENT)

4. Sales Intuition: Practical knowledge gained from sales and sales management experience translated to specific solutions for their customers (STRATEGIC)

5. Control Orientation: Closely monitor and strictly enforce a sales

process (USE OF A REPEATBLE PROCESS) Note: this assumes the organization has a recognized Sales Process

6. Coaching Adaptability: This is not “one-size-fits-all” coaching style. They adapt to each team member’s style, empowering their people to succeed (COACHING)

7. Strategic Leadership: All sales leaders are battlefield commanders who must devise the organizations’ sales strategy to maximize revenue using the most cost-effective sales model. Experience plus Business Skills! (BUSINESS SAVY)

Before we move on, I want to point out two take-aways from this. The first is that virtually none of these come from any type of education; they come from experience. The second is that, for the most part, they don’t apply to what makes a great salesperson, which leads us back to the idea that great salespeople will ultimately make great sales managers.

This is not to say that a great sales leader was not once a great salesperson, because he/she probably was, or that there are some great salespeople that will, in fact, become great sales leaders. Making either of these assumptions can be problematic.

· The first, and possibly the most important, factor is desire – does a top salesperson actually want to go into management or just be left alone to make their number…and money?

· Most salespeople don’t have the training and experience needed to be a successful sales manager.

- They are the best at selling, so they end up helping the team sell instead of managing them.

- They have to make the transition from team member to team captain so establishing the proper accountability can be difficult.

- They may want the title and prestige, but not the job. The decision was ego-based not based on the skill-set requirements…or they were coerced because of the business need.

· In the long run, you can end up with two problems rather than just the one you started with. You have now lost the sales skills in one of your top territories that have to be replaced. Plus, you didn’t get the sales management solution you needed…actually still need.

As far as our third consideration: is there a difference between sales management and sales leadership? The answer is a resounding Yes! Again, there are truckloads of information on this, but I want to simply give you a basic workable overview. The real difference is PERSPECTIVE. Sales management is mostly about day-to-day execution, coaching their sales teams to help them sell more effectively in order to achieve the objectives (quota) assigned to them by the business. Sales leadership has to be more strategic, functioning as a part of the senior leadership team setting vision and developing the overall sales strategy to support the revenue and growth objectives of the entire company.

Just for fun, here are two leadership quotes that I have used in leadership development over the years:

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because HE wants to do it.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower

“Before you are a leader, success is about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” – Jack Welch

In closing, a sales organization is unique and unlike any other department in the company. The best sales organizations have strong, experienced leaders who know how to exercise control and drive the behaviors that make both their salespeople and the business successful. They employ their experiences to develop strategic direction and know how to coach each member of their team to keep them focused on winning.

OK, so maybe it’s not voodoo, but it is certainly an art…a learned art!

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